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‘Black Panther’ is a Great Zionist Movie

A hopeful view of a shared future for a group of people who underwent displacement and persecution over generations? Sounds familiar.

Lahav Harkov
February 26, 2018
Courtesy Wa
A still from 'Black Panther'Courtesy Wa
Courtesy Wa
A still from 'Black Panther'Courtesy Wa

Black Panther is the most Zionist movie I’ve seen in a long time. As I left the theater (following two after-credits scenes, of course) in Tel Aviv, it occurred to me: Wakanda is black Altneuland–or maybe even Israel.

For those unfamiliar with the film, Black Panther centers around T’Challa, superhero Black Panther and prince of Wakanda, an African nation with a secret, massive supply of the powerful metal vibranium, which has led them to be the most technologically advanced country in the world. However, they hide their vibranium and technology from all outsiders, who think they’re a poor, third-world country. After T’Challa becomes king, an outsider called Killmonger challenges his place on the throne, as well as the country’s isolationist philosophy.

The movie is an expression of Afrofuturism, a cultural movement that can be found in visual art, literature, music, and more, and that melds science fiction, advanced technology and African diaspora culture. While the aesthetic has been around for decades–think George Clinton and the Parliament-Funkadelic, or Octavia E. Butler’s science fiction writing of the 1970s and 1980s–and the term was coined in the early 1990s, it’s having a major moment, and Black Panther is a big part of it.

Afrofuturism is an aesthetic with diverse political messages, but many works, including Black Panther, have a hopeful view of a shared future for a group of people who underwent displacement and persecution over generations. It is a way for black people to see themselves with a bright future in which they take their destiny into their own hands.

And so does Zionism. In its most basic idea, Zionism is and was a hope for a safe haven and a home for the Jewish people, who were exiled from their homeland 2,000 years ago, and have been displaced, ethnically cleansed, and otherwise persecuted and discriminated against ever since. Zionism seeks to return to the Jewish people’s historic homeland; Afrofuturist works differ, with some taking place in space, or a recent song “The Deep” by the rap group clipping. imagining a black Atlantis, but Wakanda is a black paradise in Africa.

And when it comes to Afrofuturism’s futuristic, scifi aesthetic, well, you don’t see much of that in 21st century Zionism, but if you go back over 100 years, Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, was doing exactly that. Herzl is known for creating a framework from which the State of Israel eventually bloomed, working in the world of diplomacy and journalism to advocate for the idea, planning the First Zionist Congress, and writing the book The Jewish State. He helped many Jewish people dream of a better future, and inspired them to take action and make it happen.

People tend to be less familiar with his utopian novel Altneuland, which translates to Old-New Land in English. The city Tel Aviv is named after the title’s Hebrew translation, with “tel” meaning an ancient mound, and “Aviv,” the word for spring, symbolizing the new. For anyone familiar with the real Israel, Altneuland is a deeply weird book. The frame story is about a Jewish man in Vienna who decides he’s sick of the European intellectual scene, and goes off to live on a desert island with a rich Prussian aristocrat. On the way, in 1902, they stop in Jaffa, which is a poor backwater. After 20 years on their desert island, the duo leaves, and stops in Palestine again on the way back to Europe, where they find a Jewish state in a land transformed. The residents of Herzl’s Jewish utopian state speak German, Yiddish and Hebrew, and are big opera fans, with a cooperative economy, and a lot of talk about equality, though the only real female character in the book is the love interest.

Herzl saw his Israel–like Wakanda–as having highly advanced technology, a vision that certainly came true, especially in the city named after his book, now an international hi-tech hub. Also on the more prescient side of the book is a political debate involving an extremist rabbi who wants to strip non-Jewish citizens of their right to vote–he loses in the end, and Arabs have equal rights in the “New Society,” which is what Herzl’s imagined Israel is named.

When I mentioned to a friend who also lives in Tel Aviv that I think Wakanda is kind of like Israel, he pointed out that Israel has a lot of problems, and that’s true. Israel is a real country. It’s not Altneuland–my friend and I certainly didn’t speak German or Yiddish when we had this discussion. But Wakanda is not a total utopia, either. For example, while it has an all-female army called the Dora Milaje who protect T’Challa and his kingdom, and his sister Shuri is a tech wizard who steals every scene she’s in, women are pretty much politically disenfranchised. Wakanda is made up of five tribes, all of which are led by men. Wakanda is a monarchy, not a democracy, and the only way to challenge a new king’s ascent is through hand-to-hand combat.

And then there’s the central debate of the film. Should Wakanda continue to cut itself off from the world and keep its technology to itself? Should it, as Killmonger advocates, arm black people around the world so they can rise up and take revenge for slavery and colonialism? The conclusion T’Challa draws is that Wakanda should open itself up and use its vast resources to help people in need–but not for purposes of revenge.

Israel has touched on these issues. There have been occasional moments of revenge, often justified, like Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann’s abduction from Argentina and subsequent trial and hanging, but revenge has never been the prevailing policy idea. And while Israel has never been isolationist per se, early Zionist thinkers looked down on Jews who live outside of Israel. Former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin called Israelis who left the country “the downfall of wimps.” The concept of “canceling the Diaspora,” meaning that all Jews would eventually live in Israel one day, was a central one in Zionism for a long time. These days, the prevailing idea espoused by both Diaspora Minister Naftali Bennett and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky is more of a give and take, with mutual respect and helping one another where we can, while welcoming those who wish to make Israel their home.

Which brings us to T’Challa’s idea at the end of “Black Panther,” one that Israelis are especially proud of. Israeli technology and known-how has helped people around the world, whether it’s saving Syrians in Israeli hospitals, setting up camp to save people in disaster zones like Haiti and Nepal, or sharing water and agricultural innovations, just like the Black Panther’s plan for Wakanda’s future.

Lahav Harkov is the diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. She tweets at @LahavHarkov.

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